Spy: The Funny Years

Now that Spy magazine is so long gone and deeply buried that
it’s the subject of a new book, Spy: The Funny Years, I can
finally, safely say I adored it. A breath of fresh snark exhaust,
Spy punctured holes in all the right gasbags, shaking up
’80s complacence with searing gossip, juvenile pranks, and no
apologies. As Tina Brown took Vanity Fair to heights of celebrity
ass-kissing, Spy had the balls to knock those same stars down to
the mud, including Brown herself. (Yes, Spy co-creator Graydon
Carter poetically went on to replace Tina in her ritualized
Brown-nosing—but we’ll get to that later.)

Of course at
the time, the mouthy monthly was the devil, and I could only be grateful
for it because it made my acidic Village Voice column look
positively adorable by comparison. (It also gave me the chance to
gleefully approach party-thrower Carmen D’Alessio at an event and
tell her she was in the mag’s “Separated at Birth?”
column of look-alikes that month. “Really? With who?” she
said, excitedly. “Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes,”
I replied, without remorse.)

We all lived in abject fear of Spy, mainly because the
magazine itself didn’t know from such quivering emotion. Why
should it? The more people despised it, the bigger it got, because
everyone religiously picked up a copy to devour the thing and snicker
about everyone else. It made spitting at famous people a spectator
sport, and did so with academic humor that elevated it from
tabloid-trashy sniping into the realm of sophisticated spite.

Sometimes, anyway. When the target was some remote boldface name, you
cheered the mag’s punk perspicacity. But when it was yourself, you
hid, crying, then changed your entire lifestyle to suit its criticism.
Once, in a caption, it dubbed a friend of mine
“grizzled-looking.” She’s been having surgery ever
since. Another time, Spy wrote a piece about me and fellow
downtown writers Stephen Saban and Cynthia Heimel, calling us lame,
obvious, and pseudo-hip. Nothing I’ve achieved since then has
resonated in my mind, since all I can ever think of is, “You
moron, you’re so lame, obvious, and pseudo-hip!”

As the magazine became more popular, though, I started to resent it
when I wasn’t mentioned at all. I’d comb every last arch
column and caption to see if I was important enough to get crapped on at
least a little. “Jesus,” I would think, “didn’t
I even rate one tiny, stinking reference, even in the ‘Spy
List’ of 100 assholes?”

For a publication to generate so many conflicting feelings required a
very delicate sort of genius, and the book addresses that, noting how
even 20 years after its launch, Spy’s influence turns up
all over TV, publishing, and the web. From The Daily Show to
irony-laden features in Entertainment Weekly and Time, a
lot of today’s jabbing of the rich and famous can be traced to
Spy’s acerbic Spying. It’s especially evident
in the internet’s Wild West-style free-for-all of personal
punditry, perfected by all those witheringly bitter blogs and the
cleverly caustic Gawker, which is basically an all-day version of
Spy for free.

So, all hail Spy—and its 20th anniversary book, which is
an exhaustive look at its conception, rise, and fall. Designed by
onetime Spy art director Alexander Isley, it’s every bit as
visually busy as the magazine itself. After introductory essays by
founders Tom Phillips, Kurt Andersen, and Carter, the mag’s
history is told by ex-Spy editor George Kalogerakis, with lots of
pull quotes, excerpts, and editors’ asides punctuating the pages
like literary Post-its. Like Spy itself, this book is clearly
for smart people with ADD.

A board game posing as a magazine,
Spy was always packed more tightly than Joan Rivers’s
face. It overflowed with charts, lists, floating photos, and maps, all
cramming minutiae into your brain while at the same time challenging you
to absorb every column inch. As Steven Heller writes in the chapter on
the magazine’s look, “Spy’s design prefigured
the Web in terms of the multiple entry points and levels of
information.” And it was classy—mainly because, as the
magazine’s first art director, Stephen Doyle, explains, “The
serif type, the letter spacing, all this 20th-century publishing history
that went into it gave it the authority it needed to be as sarcastic as
it was.”

The adult-looking typefaces gave the bratty points of
view more weight, but the covers generally went for sheer eye-grabbing,
winky boldness. That was true whether they used Photoshopped
images—like Hillary Clinton as a smiling dominatrix in February
1993, for a piece on “Power Playing in the Clinton White
House”—or actual ones, like brave model Carol Alt with rats
crawling up her legs, for the May 1988 “Welcome to Rat
City!” cover. (The accompanying article was about Gotham’s
infestation, but naturally the editors included a sidebar on
“America’s Rodent People,” citing notables like
“smarmy talk show host-vulgarian Geraldo Rivera” and
“pathologically libidinous actor James Woods.”)

After
Spy’s creative team broke up and the magazine lost its
momentum (ultimately folding in ’98), its editors went on to kiss
a little ass and pretty much become the very mainstream people
they’d mercilessly made fun of. But they admit it, and they still
have some sharp critical faculties to invoke when given half a chance.
Besides, you can’t overflow with young, reckless rage
forever.

Their lacerating legacy lives on, and thanks to classic
articles like “It’s Okay to Hate High Culture,” we
long ago became aware that it’s okay to hate, period—as long
as it’s done with self-mocking smarts and swashbuckling style.

But wait just a minute. I just found an old Spy chart
in the book, delineating how readers can separate so-so schlock stars
from truly awful ones. The lowest of the low, the chart claims,
“dote on Michael Musto.” I’m quivering all over again.
Die again, Spy!

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